The Real Eighties: Anything Goes

In 1978, the Swedish pop band ABBA – one of the biggest artists of the seventies – built “Polar Studios” – a top-of-the-line recording studio..  It was exquisitely expensive, even by the standards of the day, what with the acoustics and top of the line mixing console and peripherals and all.

And, a few years later, in 1981, got even moreso; the group spent over half a million dollars, reportedly, just for a new 3M digital recorders, making Polar the world’s first commercial digital recording studio. All for a recording studio that had about as much recording power as your cell phone today.

And in 1981, ABBA released The Visitors, the first commercial record recorded purely using digital technology.

It was the only notable thing about the record.

We’ll come back to that.


One of the eighties’ biggest artists was Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know I’m a big Springsteen fan – starting in the late seventies.  The eighties were hog heaven for a Bruce fan, of course; The River was a classic, Born In The USA was an inescapable hit, and Tunnel of Love was a wonderful, if very downbeat, record.

But today we’re going to focus two other albums from the era.

Nebraska came out in 1982.  After the rock and roll thrill ride of The River, Nebraska was unsettlingly bleak; a downbeat homage to Woody Guthrie chock full of songs about murderous drifters and regular schmucks driven over the edge.

I mean, this was the “single”…

…or as close to it as they got. Nobody mistook it for Madonna or the Culture Club – or for1984’s Born in the USA, which was right behind Thriller among the top sellers of the big-selling decade.

(Seriously – bleak):

It was a jarring shift, after the rock and roll thrill ride of The River.

And yet in some ways, Nebraska may have had a greater effect on popular music today – at least, the business of popular music – than any of his others.

Because it was, in its entirety, recorded on one of these little numbers:

It’s a TEAC Tascam four-track cassette deck.  It allowed a musician – or anyone, really – to record four tracks of music onto a conventional audio cassette (and I’ll let everyone in the house over the age of 32 or so explain what a “conventional audio cassette” was.  Thanks).  It was the same basic sort of technology that the Beatles used to record all of their albums (albeit there was a certain amount of engineering technique involved with that).  And it ran for under $1,000 – well within the range of many hopeful musicians, to say nothing of platinum-sellers.

And with a little creative use of the monitor circuit, you could easily mix three tracks down to one, and leave yourself room for a couple more instruments, allowing a single musician to record a full-band demo with all the instruments and vocals.  Just like I did from 1984 through 1990 with its even cheaper competitor, the Fostex X15:..

…which listed for $399 at Marguerite’s Music in Moorhead in the summer of ’84, and allowed me to do demo tapes where I’d record…

  1. a guide guitar and metronome on to track 1,
  2. Drums and bass onto 2-3, and a new rhythm guitar onto 1,
  3. Bounce drums and bass down to 4,
  4. Organ (a Farfisa combo that I found in a pump room in my college chapel, actually) onto 2
  5. Bounce the rhythm guitar and organ onto 3,
  6. Do vocals and a lead guitar part onto 1 and 2, respectively,
  7. Mix the whole thing down onto another cassette deck.

Nebraska sold a few million.

I did not.

The point, though, was that not only was the cost of recording technology dropping, but the idea of being able to record an album in your kitchen or basement and put it out and sell copies was…

…well, still far-fetched.  Springsteen could do it because he’s well, Springsteen.  And he wrote great music.  And had a record label that wanted to put his stuff out there.  And back then, the record label was the gatekeeper.

It would take the Internet to change that – as well  as a jump back to ABBA and The Visitors and Polar Studios.

Their digital recording suite cost a solid half a million back in 1980.

Ten years later, when I was at KDWB, a suite perhaps an order or two of magintude more powerful cost the station about $50K.

Ten years later, the first round of home digital recorders – including the Korg D8…

….put a home digital recording console with eight tracks of digital recording power – every bit as much power as KDWB’s sysem if not more (albeit a little less flexibility – it was a home studio, after all) into a handy carry-along package similar to the Tascam, for under $1000 – where the Tascam had been twenty years earlier.

And today, Apple gives away “GarageBand”, a piece of home recording software combining the recording power of Polar Studios (albeit not the acoustics and peripherals) with a recording GUI that was sci-fi material in 1990, and digital sound modeling technology that was pretty thrilling stuff ten years ago.

Don't look now, but somebody's trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix, circa 1966.

…allowing a home musician to record dozens of tracks, process them using digital modeling that was the province of the pro ten years ago, and put it out via the Internet and start the process of marketing it via the Intenet, all on a home PC that…

…I did say Apple “gives it away” (provided you drop at least $700 on a Macintosh product), right?

And that was one of the big legacies of eighties music; two of the currents that would lead to the rise of the Do It Yourself musician, and, some say, the downfall of the major record labels – the idea of do-it-yourself music and the growing ubiquity of technology – really teed up in the early eighties.

9 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Anything Goes

  1. I still like Nebraska. One of the first albums I ever purchased (got it in 1985, after Born In the USA had dominated for a year).
    The story goes that Springsteen recorded it at home, not to release, but just to write the songs and bring the tape into the studio. The plan was to do a perminant recording of these songs with his band. The full band thing didn’t work with these songs.
    So the cassette that Springsteen was carrying around in his pocked, suddenly became the master for the record to be released.

  2. Chuck,

    Yep. Dave Marsh, in his biography “Glory Days”, wrote about the technical process they had to go through to get that cassette tape remixed into something they could press onto a record. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Sorry, but I’m not a big fan of Springsteen and imo, Nebraska was a huge dud. That said, I give him high kudos though for his recent participation in Stand Up for Heroes to raise money for injured vets. He auctioned his guitar and the shirt off of his back during the event for about $160K. Jon Stewart even participated.

  4. Music today doesn’t need a major label to produce it, but it does need one to promote it! If you’re an overweight, acne-scared bad attitude with a drinking problem, but a good sense of rhythm, you might be able to create a song – but the human dynamics of promoting it require good looks, brains and some business acumen – something most garage bands cannot buy (unless a slick promoter gets them to put down their own money).

    As always, good music isn’t determined as much by talent as it is by – luck. (See: Swift, Taylor).

  5. From a guy who always wanted to have a big band with piano, organ, sax, two guitars, bass and drums comes this simple, yet intricate, work from a guy and his guitar.

    Bruce said years ago before singing Used Cars, “my dad drove every Cadillac on the lot, but he somehow always came home with a Rambler”.

  6. “One of the eighties’ biggest artists was Bruce Springsteen.”

    If you were not a big fan, this would be a reason the 80s were a dry season in music history. *shrug*

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